San Francisco Chronicle

Spacey as lovable lummox For ‘Shipping News,’ actor was asked to be ‘like a loaf’
Carla Meyer, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2001

Beverly Hills — In “The Shipping News,” Kevin Spacey defies the W.C. Fields adage by working with kids and animals. The animals in question are fish in various states of flop and/or gutting, but potential scene-stealers nonetheless. The kids are the actresses playing Spacey’s daughter — all three of them. Nine- year-old triplets Alyssa, Kaitlyn and Lauren Gainer share the substantial role in director Lasse  Hallstrom’s movie version of E. Annie Proulx’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The limits on kids’ working hours, coupled with long shooting days caused by unpredictable Newfoundland weather, meant each sister got plenty of screen time opposite Spacey in “News,” which opens Christmas Day. “Sometimes Lasse would try to get something out of one of them that he wasn’t getting from another, so he would switch them within a scene,” Spacey says with a chuckle. “(The crew) would take 10 minutes to relight, and I would come back and say, ‘Hey, wait, this is new. Are you still Alyssa?’ I don’t think you can tell in the movie. It was quite remarkable.”

Spacey, 42, appears unremarkable in person, dressed down in jeans and running shoes that he plops on a hotel room coffee table. But with his lively wit and velvety, authoritative voice, he commands the room the way he can the screen. The actor was attracted to Quoyle, his “Shipping News” character, precisely because he’s not the smartest guy in the room. Instead, Spacey’s Quoyle is hapless, lumbering and sweet — the antithesis of his droll characters in everything from “The Ref” to “K-Pax.” “Shipping” couldn’t be better timed for Spacey, whose smarty-pants screen persona drew some critical yawns when “K- Pax” came out in October.

“I wanted to sort of shed anything people thought or expected I might do because of what I’ve done previously,” he says. “I think there are more Quoyles out there, people just getting through the day, than there are snappy, ironic-talking characters in movies — though those are fun to play.” In the novel, Quoyle is described as a “walrus” with hairy hands, but Spacey and Hallstrom decided to go smaller. He gained 20 pounds and adopted a lumbering, arms-out gait to convey the character’s heaviness of body and spirit. He still looks awkward but is appealing enough to romance Julianne Moore’s character. “Lasse would say, ‘I want you to be like a loaf,’ ” Spacey says, mimicking Hallstrom’s Swedish accent. “I asked him, ‘What kind of loaf?’ And he said, ‘Just a loaf.’ ”

Author Proulx, who weathered several false starts on the screen adaptation – – John Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton were attached at different points — is pleased with Spacey’s portrayal. “He was big and clumsy, whether it was sweaters or the weight,” she says. “He wasn’t the Kevin Spacey of other films, slender and clever.” Playing a guy lacking in confidence isn’t the departure it seems, says Spacey, claiming his own cool-customer rap is exaggerated. “I hear it a lot, from the press, and from friends: ‘You look so confident, ‘ ” Spacey says. “And I think, ‘You haven’t a clue that I’m p — in my pants.’ ” He cites his well-received performance of the song “Mind Games” at the John Lennon-New York City tribute in October: “I was absolutely terrified. It was heart-attack time. I feel that every time I walk onto a stage.”

There was one aspect of Quoyle that Spacey simply couldn’t relate to — his morbid fear of water. “I adore the water; I can’t get enough of it,” says Spacey, who based that part of the character on people he knew with the same fears. “I have a memory of a day on a boat with this girl who just hated the water so much and kept falling,” he says with a smile. “It was very serious and very funny.” The actor, who’s guarded about his personal life, won’t elaborate. But he will allow that it was on a lake.

Spacey next will star as an anti-death penalty activist accused of murder in “The Life of David Gale.” His dream project, a biopic of doomed singer Bobby Darin, also is finally a go, he says. In the meantime, Spacey, already a two-time Oscar winner (“American Beauty,” “The Usual Suspects”), is skirting talk of another nomination. “There are times when I feel like I could do a Campbell’s soup commercial and they would be saying, ‘Well, now, everyone’s talking about you being nominated,’ ” he says. When he adds that nobody has even seen “The Shipping News” yet, he’s reminded that a few people, including his interviewer, have seen it. Spacey pauses, then clears his throat theatrically. “And I’m hoping, of course, to get your vote.” ‘The Shipping News’

The movie opens Christmas Day at Bay Area theaters.